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Introducing Polyphia, Rising Stars of the Instrumental Guitar Scene

Introducing Polyphia, Rising Stars of the Instrumental Guitar Scene Polyphia (from left): Tim Henson, Clay Gober, Clay Aeschliman and Scott LePage

The fact that Henson was playing this type of music in high school was all the more uncommon given the fact that another teenager, LePage, was living in the same town and doing the same thing.

“Everybody always tells us it’s so crazy,” LePage says. “I literally live five minutes down the street from Tim, and I grew up going to school with the guy. It’s funny though because we didn’t really start playing guitar together until my junior year. I always knew he was a sick guitarist but we never really played music together until mutual friends linked us up. But once they did, that was it. We just connected so perfectly.” When Henson and LePage initially formed Polyphia, however, it was to pursue a sound that was markedly different from the one they have today.

“We were both really into death metal and deathcore,” Henson says. “We loved Whitechapel. Within the Ruins. Oceano. Heavy shit like that. And that was the first Polyphia sound—pretty much just shredding the entire time.” That sound can be heard on Polyphia’s initial 2011 demo, Resurrect, recorded when LePage was 18 and Henson just 17. The four-song offering is jam-packed with insanely acrobatic shredding and loopy lead and harmony lines, all of it played over grinding, downtuned riffs and rapid-fire blast-beat drumming.

The sound, LePage says, was like “pretty much anything that would be on the Summer Slaughter Tour type of stuff.” Initially, however, the young band wasn’t sure exactly how to fully realize their style. At one point early on, they even added vocals to Resurrect, partly in an effort to land a slot on the roster of one of their favorite metal labels, Sumerian.

“Sumerian was our dream record label at the time,” Henson says. “We played a festival with another Sumerian band who liked our music, and they said, ‘We’re gonna tell our label to check you out. What’s your email?’ So Sumerian hit us up, and we were so stoked. But we opened it and literally all it said was: Where’s the singer? So we were like, ‘Fuck, guess we need a singer…’ ”

Polyphia did in fact create a version of Resurrect that featured both clean and harsh vocals, but it proved an uneasy fit for the music.

“So right before we released the music we took all the vocals off and put the EP out that way,” LePage says. From there, Polyphia’s road forward as an instrumental act was set, even as their sound was just beginning its evolution. The band’s next recording, the 2013 EP Inspire, found them moving away from the manic deathcore sound of their earliest days to something that was still heavy and chunky, yet infinitely more melodic. One track from that album, “Impassion,” also served as their breakthrough single of sorts, after the band decided to post a guitar playthrough video that displayed every run, sweep and dive-bomb in up-close, high-def quality, to YouTube to accompany the track. To date, the clip has more than two million views.

“We did that because that was the thing to do at the time,” Henson says matter-of-factly. “We went to this spot in Dallas’ art district that is just a really cool-looking place, and we brought our guitars and a laptop and cameras and filmed the playthrough in public, in front of everybody. And we got a lot of traction on YouTube from it. People really liked the aesthetic of the video—even though it was total DIY.”

It was with Polyphia’s next recording, the 2014 full-length Muse, that they truly grew into the sound they’re known for today, incorporating elements of pop, funk, electronic music and other styles into their shred-guitar framework. Songs like “Champagne,” “Sweet Tea” and “James Franco” explode with vibrant, insanely catchy hooks and upbeat melodies, and are wrapped in a crisp production that lends the music a sleek, almost futuristic vibe.

Says LePage, “Around that time we didn’t really want to play fast, shreddy metal anymore. We started getting into radio songs, and that opened up this whole new world to us, like, ‘Everything on the radio is catchy and sticks in my head…whether I or anybody thinks it’s good or not!’ We wanted to get away from the whole, ‘Let’s just get on the record and shred as hard as we can’ kind of thing.”

As for what sort of music the guys were getting into? “I discovered Drake,” Henson says simply. “And to this day, right now, I listen to Drake every day. I know every lyric to every song. So it was Drake and rap and hip-hop and just generally things on the radio. In fact, that’s where most of the songs on Muse come from. They’re based on popular songs from 2014 that were on the radio. We’d pick out favorites and try to write over them.”

As an example, Henson points to the standout Muse track “Champagne.” “That song is based on [New Orleans R&B and hip-hop artist] August Alsina’s ‘I Luv This Shit,’ ” he explains. “I remember hearing that on the radio for the first time and it just blew my mind, because the way it was structured was verse/pre-chorus/chorus/post-chorus. I’d never heard something like that. I just thought it was so amazing the way it builds all this tension just to release it into a chorus, and then do it again with a post-chorus. It’s just hook after hook after hook. So we pretty much wrote over this rap song and then stripped the rap song and put bass and drums to it. And it’s really fun, because when you play that song and you play the guitar part from ‘Champagne’ over it, it lines up perfectly.”

Another way in which Polyphia drew inspiration from hip-hop on Muse was in their use of guest guitarists, which mimicked the way rap tracks are packed full of guest verses. To help out on various songs, the band tapped everyone from Intervals’ Aaron Marshall (“Sweet Tea”) and Chon’s Mario Camarena (“Baditude”) to solo shredder Nick Johnston (“Champagne”) and ex–Chelsea Grin shredder Jason Richardson (“Aviator”).

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